Climate change "deniers"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Use of the term “deniers” in reports about climate change

You wrote to complain about the use of the term “deniers” for those who question or disbelieve some or all of the scientific evidence for significant human causation of climate change—what has come to be called AGW (anthropogenic global warming).

You said the term is inaccurate since “the vast majority of critics of climate change policy do not ‘deny' that the climate is warming. What they question is the warming is likely to lead to a catastrophe and whether it is necessary to adopt the policies promoted by AGW activists and agencies such as the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change].”

You also felt that the term was being used by AGW activists “to associate critics of their policies with holocaust deniers,” adding that the terms ‘skeptic' or ‘contrarian' are the normal English words used to describe people who question scientific claims.

The Director of CBC Radio News Programming, Jane Anido, replied. She pointed out that “A ‘denier', by definition, is simply a person who denies, a controversialist, disputant or contrarian....might also point out,” she continued, “that CBC News is not alone in using the terms ‘deniers' (as well as ‘skeptics') in this context.” She mentioned Lawrence Solomon's book “The Deniers”, a sympathetic treatment of those who question AGW.

You were not satisfied with Ms. Anido's reply and asked for a review.


The CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices cites three basic principles underlying CBC journalism:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

For our purposes, the first principle, Accuracy, contains the simple language most pertinent to the case: “a disciplined use of language.” This implies that journalists must strive to find the most accurate language to describe people and events. In the broadcast media, this is a task even more difficult than in print. Most broadcast news stories must encapsulate complicated ideas and events in brief sentences without the luxury of supporting paragraphs of explanatory material.

Under the pressure of the medium and of deadlines, journalists sometimes grasp for a word or phrase which may be sufficient to the task, but may not be up to the highest standards the policy would seem to demand.

Ms. Anido is undoubtedly correct in her parsing of the definition of “denier”, but I think it might be useful to reflect a bit more subtly on the nuances of this particular issue.

You may believe that the “vast majority” of critics of climate change policy are simply motivated by a skeptical review of the science. However, a realistic assessment of the rise of the criticism shows clearly that many of the early and most active opponents of the scientific consensus and the policy suggestions that flow from it were not mere skeptics, but public relations and “issues management” experts funded by industries that had a large financial interest in undermining that consensus. These early “deniers” were, in fact, just that—some had moved over from campaigns to undermine the scientific consensus on the subject of the ill-effects of smoking.

So, skepticism was not really involved, but a carefully crafted public relations and media management campaign to undermine the climate change consensus for business reasons, not scientific ones.

As time has gone on, the proponents of AGW have reacted to that pressure by, unfortunately, adopting some of the same tactics: making bold pronouncements of impending doom and suggesting aggressive policy changes to deal with the situation. For some of them (clearly not all), the nuance of scientific discussion was left behind. I recall that press material accompanying the film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” used quite inflammatory language, implying that, without a massive effort, the planet would face catastrophe within the decade. The film was made a decade back. While the fact base underlying the issue certainly commands our attention, hysterical language is not useful for a rational understanding of the task in front of us.

For those of us who are not scientists, but ordinary citizens trying to make sense of the world and what we can do to make it a better place, hearing the shouting from various sides is not helpful. We rely on journalism to present us with information on which we can base sound judgments on public policy. Journalism must provide us with careful and accurate reporting, not swayed either by funded agents of industries, or by possibly well-meaning but misguided boosters of particular social or political positions. Not an easy task in this age of “shouting” by proponents of various positions.

Skepticism is one of the cornerstones of journalistic practice. Of course, it is not to be confused with cynicism, nor with manipulation, spin or denial of fact.

The good journalist should always view the “accepted” with an appropriately open mind, but not an empty one. For example, evolution can be acknowledged as accepted science, without closing the mind to new discoveries that might amend the theory.

While the “theory” of evolution (theory here being a scientific term) can be tested with actual artifacts, the “science” of climate change appears to be a mixture of artifact and projection. Journalists should approach any kind of projection openly, but skeptically. This is quite a different position from those who argue against AGW, and more in line with those who see that the broad spectrum of scientific opinion tends in one direction but remain open to both the historical and current data which might suggest variations.

While there are undoubtedly “deniers” in the anti-AGW fold—perhaps at the heart of it—there are also those who quite legitimately question and probe data, and policy proposals that flow from that data. To label all who question some aspect of the AGW proposition as “deniers” seems to me to be a less-than-disciplined use of the language.

At the same time, I have to confess that, knowing the roots of some of the anti-AGW proponents, calling them all “skeptics” is also inaccurate. Skepticism is a scientific and journalistic stance, not the product of ideology or self-interest. The challenge for CBC journalists will be to resist easy but misleading terminology and to attempt to capture each situation as it comes along, sharing with the audience what we know of the people involved in order to provide useful context.

Conclusion

In order to achieve a disciplined use of the language, CBC journalists should resist the easy invocation of both “deniers” and “skeptics”. I would recommend that journalists use either when clearly appropriate, but avoid the easy shorthand when the circumstances call for a more nuanced description.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman